Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Changes for the New Year!

One of the reasons why I love being a teacher is that each school year offers a fresh start -- a chance to do it better. Over the summer, I had an opportunity to listen to a lot of great speakers and to figure out for myself what changes I would like to introduce this year. Some of the things they said were not new; I had heard it all once in grad school, and had even read some of the same articles before. But, back then, I was in my first or second year of teaching and everything was about survival. I did not have the luxury of thinking about how giving a 5-second wait time can make a world of difference in my class. I needed to put out fires and to make sure that kids were doing thoughtful assignments and that the unit was cohesive and that kids were learning good habits from me and that the problems are scaffolded appropriately.

I think that as a slightly less newbie teacher now (I still feel very green, now going into my 6th year), I am at a different place in my career and my PD. I am fortunate to have had some great mentors along the way and some great resources for working on developing lessons that have worked out OK for me and the kids. Now I need to focus on my classroom craft, on how I ask questions, on building a better relationship with kids, on making sure that every kid is thinking hard every moment of the class, not only about the content but about themselves as people and as learners. Those are the bigger things I want to try to address this year -- hopefully by implementing "small" changes with big impacts.

So, I have in mind some things I want to do (they're not all such small changes, but I think they're manageable!):

* I am going to ask my new math colleagues to observe my teaching, and I am going to ask them right at the beginning of the year, before I have an opportunity to chicken out. I am going to schedule a teacher once every week in the beginning, and to ask them to observe me on a specific classroom goal I am trying to work on. For example, one of my classroom goals this year is to increase wait time and to facilitate effective whole-class discussions. I am going to ask my colleague to give me feedback specific to that, and also general feedback on the class and the lesson. Then, a couple of weeks later, I will ask a different colleague to come in, observe me on my wait time, and also to observe me on whether I am asking open-ended, exploratory questions and letting kids come to their own conclusions without me being The Authority. Then, a few weeks later, I'll ask a third colleague to come in and observe me on open-ended questioning and also how my kids are doing with meta-cognition. Eventually (ie. Semester 2??), I'll work my way to the bigger evaluation criteria, like the ones outlined in our rubric for mathematical practices.

Why am I doing this? It's two folds: 1. Obviously, as I have said, I want to get better at my classroom craft, and I know that having someone else in the room will help remind me that I'm supposed to be working on that actively. 2. I feel that it would be a great way to bond with my new colleagues and to show them by example that I value their input. Hopefully this will also open doors to talking about what we are doing in our classrooms, and hopefully if my colleagues see that I am comfortable asking for their direct feedback on my teaching, then they would feel comfortable down the road letting me observe their teaching as well.

* I am going to start a 4-people Critical Friends Group. At Klingenstein we rehearsed a protocol for reviewing lessons and/or a unit that you are struggling with. What I liked most about the protocol was that it removed subjectivity as much as possible and helped the person who is receiving feedback feel protected and not judged (well, if you stick faithfully to the protocol, that is). It also fosters cross-curricular feedback and collaboration, since these CFGs are typically made up of people from different departments (another way this protocol ensures you remain the "expert" of your domain and your colleagues are minimally judgmental and mostly supportive). I have already gotten an OK from one of the administrators to put out an announcement to all the staffers at the start of the year, to find 3 volunteers who are willing to be guinea pigs with me for a cycle of 4 rounds during Q1. Each of us would bring in something to share with the group -- something that we are genuinely struggling with and would like support/feedback on. If at the end of Q1 they all hate it, I'll ask for new volunteers and start a different group. If they like it, I'll break it into more groups and have them each facilitate a new group to help the idea grow at the school.

Why am I doing this? It's a way of taking PD into my own hands and to make sure (like this blog and general blog-reading does) that I am having quality reflections on teaching throughout the year.

* I am starting a new system for homework. It's a balance between letting kids have optional homework assignments but still using homework effectively as assessment tools. For each homework assignment, I am going to assign problems in all the following categories:

A: Self-assessment (You are expected to do this and make sure you can get the correct answer as provided. Show all work!)
B: Optional practice (If A was not completely straight forward, you should do these and check answers against those provided.)
C: Extension (Here's what's coming soon... TRY IT and let me see how far you get. Show all work!)
D: Teacher assessment (I want to see how many of you can get this correct. We're shooting for 100% on this! We'll review answers tomorrow in class.)

Why am I doing this? I agree with the SBG folks that kids should not be forced to do "busy" homework if they already get something, but I disagree that kids always know when they need that extra practice. I am going to make it explicit for them by providing homework solutions for all the problems (except the Extension and Teacher Assessment problems), and they can stop when they feel like they really get it with ease. The extension problems get kids to be used to working with/examining problems just beyond their reach. Teacher assessment is something I can have kids quickly write down numeric answers to on a sheet of paper (or hold up a whiteboard) at the start of class for me to assess where the class stands. This keeps homework meaningful for all of us.

* I am going to do weekly student feedback cards so that I can get ongoing, "formative" feedback as well.

* Allot time for meta-cognition. I want to do this early and frequently, so that it becomes part of the kids' routine during class. I wrote a separate blog post about some strategies for implementing this back in July, but obviously it could be less sexy methods, too, like building it into a worksheet.

* Once or twice each unit, I am going to build in "hinge points" into a lesson. We learned about this at PCMI this year, and it's something I am really missing in my classes. I am not going to go crazy with this, but a couple of times each unit I do want to create a lesson that can "hinge" one way or another depending on my on-the-spot assessment of where the kids stand. This way, lessons are not always so linear from A to Z, without taking into account kids' reactions in real time.

* I want to be more patient. One of the most powerful lessons I learned at KSI was that kids are learning from you every second in your presence. Am I being the adult that I want them to grow up to be, every minute of everyday? That's such a powerful question and one that I am afraid to answer, because the responsibility of it all seems daunting. I am going to try harder than ever to be that model adult every moment, every day.

Over the course of the summer, I've thought a lot about this list of changes and I believe it's a good, manageable one. It's ambitious, but most of it (except CFG) are small things that I can implement without changing EVERYTHING I am already doing, which is important to me. Wish me luck!


  1. Yay collaboration! Beginning of the year excitement is contagious. I applaud your efforts. I also didn't think about the protocol idea making everything so much easier. It was one of those, "why didn't I see it before?" moments.

  2. Nice. Hooray for hinge points. I wrote about them a loooonnggg time ago before A. I could put together a coherent blog post and B. Anyone read my blog.

    I think A and B were related.

    Really changed my teaching.

  3. Wow, this list seems to manageable and yet so huge all that the same time. You're a rockstar! Also, this has me totally inspired to get going this year. May need to talk to you more about CFGs in the future...

  4. Oh Mimi, I want to do all these things (but CFG)! But don't you feel so overwhelmed? You are inspiring me. I need to come up with a coherent list like this. Thank you. And AAAAAAAAAH!

  5. @Alex The protocol is great, because it is a way to help us learn how to talk to our colleagues to provide feedback on their curriculum without making them feel defensive. I don't think that type of communication training typically comes embedded in the traditional teacher training, but it seems so necessary if we want to grow as a community!

    @Jason That is great!! Thanks for the elaboration and the voiced support for this type of lesson design. PS. I didn't think your post was incoherent. But maybe my own coherence is poor...

    @meandthedoor I'd love to talk to you about CFGs! but maybe after I try implementing them for the first go-around?

    @Sam I am very forgiving when I think about goals. Goals are things that I write down in a list and I look at periodically to remind myself what I want to work on that's worthwhile. I don't think of them as all-or-nothing (I call those resolutions), and so I don't feel that overwhelmed! Clearly I probably won't do all of those things all at once and get them all right consistently - that'd be crazy. But they're good goals for me to work towards changing incrementally throughout the course of this year, and THAT I think is doable.

  6. @Sam I also can't wait to see your list!! :)